If you were to ask an average Cambodian to name three Cambodian beers it’s quite likely that they’d say Anchor, Angkor and Cambodia – though perhaps not in that order – with an outside chance that they might throw you for a loop and name ABC Stout or Ganzberg instead.
For many years those brands and other similar offerings from their respective breweries were just about the only made-in-Cambodia beers available.
That’s no longer the case – though the introduction of local craft beers to the Kingdom has been such a gradual process over the years that these new micro-breweries and their mini-brands may have slipped right past your beverage radar.
To wit: Flowers Nanobrewery based out of Kampot province is brewing its own original craft beers – only available in Cambodia – under the watchful eye of Japanese founder and brewmaster Yuki Aotani.
Flowers Nanobrewery’s beers each have a distinct style and taste derived from the brewery’s unique use of local ingredients and they specialise in small-batch made to order custom beers tailored to each customer’s request.
Aotani was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan – but he studied and then worked in the US – living there for seven years before coming to Cambodia in 2015.
He arrived in the Kingdom that year expressly to continue the region-wide search he’d undertaken looking for the perfect country and city to settle down and start a brewery in.
“I searched within Japan – north to south – but the costs are too high for starting a business and there are too many restrictions and high taxes and a lot of competition.
“The same problems came up when I went to Indonesia to check out Bali and again over in Taipei in Taiwan and yet again in Thailand’s Chiang Mai. Cambodia, however, was the place that turned out to be the most open in terms of hosting start-up businesses – especially smaller ones – owned by foreigners,” Aotani, 46, tells The Post.
It took him about a year to get the Flowers Nanobrewery up and running after he arrived in Cambodia. Initially he had trouble sourcing the supplies and ingredients he needed and he ended up having to order things from abroad and go through a testing process of trial and error to work it all out.
Flowers Nanobrewery started out operating from the rented house Aotani was staying at since it has four rooms and a big yard and the brewery spent its first two formative years at that location.
While perfecting his recipes and methods, Aotani started up a Sushi restaurant because he felt that his early batches of beer were barely of drinkable quality so there was no way he was going to try and charge anyone money for them for about the first six months.
“I decided to try selling beer and sushi out of a food stall in a good central location. That was fun, but it wasn’t easy. I quit selling beers on the street as drafts and started bottling them instead and I quit doing the restaurant for now and I am just concentrating on distributing my special nano-batch custom beers,” Aotani says.
Part of Kampot’s appeal for Aotani was its near-total lack of a local craft brewery scene in town because he says he simply isn’t interested in getting into competitions over whose beer is the best.
“All beers are great in their own way and the beer that you brew yourself is always the best-of-all to the one who brewed it,” Aotani says.
Instead of competing for a limited share of a crowded market, Aotani would rather find new and fresh markets to introduce craft beers into and he says he likes the idea of attaching his creations to a particular time, place and person – i.e. his custom beer customers.
“The uniqueness of my beers is derived from this primitive equipment of ours, the water of Kampot town and my personality and tastes as a brewer.
“But you have to realise that even if ten brewers were to use exactly the same recipe there would still be ten different-tasting beers in the end when it came time to sample them. That’s what’s truly fun about craft beers,” he says.
Aotani designs and brews his custom batches of beer made to his customer’s specifications and preferences. He talks it over with the customer and notes down all of their ideas and requests and tries to come up with something that crosses-off as many items on their wish-list as possible while still being enjoyable to drink.
“I like to get a feel for their personalities and their lifestyles, too. If they are ordering the batch to sell at their bar or restaurant I try to check the place out first so I understand the vibe there and what kind of customers they have. And then I take all that and put it together to design their beer,” says Aotani.
Flowers Nanobrewery’s custom beers can run the gamut of beer styles from American and British ales, porters and stouts to French Saison or Trappistesque Belgian ales to India pale ales and even wheat beers. Custom means custom and Aotani says he will try to give you whatever you request if he can manage it.
With the nanobrewery’s standard line of craft beers he’s been focusing heavily on his choice of sub-ingredients for them like herbs, spices, grains or vegetables because if you can get the recipe just right you can brew beers with surprisingly pleasant but unusual characteristics.
Besides the basic malts and hops, he’s made use of dragon fruit, pineapples, coffee, lemongrass, mangoes, rice, whey, coriander seeds, star anise, black pepper, kaffir lime, salt, yogurt, ginger and he’s open to trying out anything else you might have in your pantry because you never know when you’ll strike gold using some kitchen odds and ends.
Aotani follows a standard brewing process with multiple steps and it usually takes him nine hours or so to brew a batch. Ales usually take about four weeks after brewing before they are mature enough to drink and some beers benefit from waiting periods of several months or longer depending on the flavour-profile you’re aiming to achieve.
“How long craft beer can keep depends on the beer’s style and its alcohol content, but mostly it is better to drink it early. Beers can change in character over time and some aged beers are very different than they were when fresh, but some can be very good that way and it’s hard to know unless you give it a try,” he says.
He says his target market is for those who respect and understand the importance of uniqueness and that any owner of a business or their customers who care about uniqueness – not as a competition but as a state of being or an end unto itself – will appreciate what he’s doing and support him.
It also helps that Flowers Nanobrewery’s craft beers have been improving with every batch and can now please even those few rare expats in Cambodia who fancy themselves alcohol-elites or beer snobs when they happen across them. And the price is right no matter who is drinking it.
“I start from $2 per bottle just to be able to keep up and pay the bills. I’ve never been rich in my whole life. But I suppose I could try to change that by charging more... That’s how the real business types do it, right? ” he asks with a chuckle.
Aotani says he would like to begin recycling his bottles and reusing them but for now with his primary market up in Phnom Penh it isn’t an easy task to collect all of the bottles again.
“Therefore, I’m considering moving to the capital just so I can get a handle on the recycling situation and that will also reduce the time and money spent on delivering all the beer,” he says.
Aotani plans to run monthly events offering perks like discounts and samples in partnership with local shops, pubs and restaurants to showcase his craft beers.
He also plans to continue experimenting with odd ingredients in custom batches as he builds up sales for his regular line of products and he says he’ll bring some of those Frankenstein-beers along to the events as well.
“I want to share those super unique and challenging beers with the fans and get their feedback by hearing them out directly from what they think or want or whether they like them at all.
“And we’re not quite at the point yet where we can have big parties and weddings, but I would like to brew special beers for those special events and occasions.
“Especially for Khmer people who have not yet known how much fun or how joyful craft beers can be. I really want to do more custom order craft beers for the wonderful people of Cambodia who have welcomed me and my brewery into their country,” Aotani says.
For more information on Flowers Nanobrewery, contact them via their Facebook page: @FlowersNanobrewery.